Belgium’s iconic beer and fries threatened by climate change effects

Belgian beer and fries. [Shutterstock/CapturePB]

Two of Belgium’s most iconic products, beer and fries, stand to be severely affected by the effects of climate change, a new report commissioned by the National Climate Commission warned on Thursday (17 September).

According to the study, changes in Belgium will mainly be felt through heat waves, floods and droughts, with warmer, drier summers and milder, wetter winters slowly becoming the new normal.

“In recent years Belgium has experienced persistently mild winters, recurring drought episodes and a succession of hot summers, culminating in the unprecedented temperature extremes recorded during the summer of 2019,” says the report, which was written before this year’s record-breaking temperatures in summer.

According to the study, the number of heatwaves is expected to increase from about 1 to almost 27 days per year in the period 2041-2074 compared to the 1981-2014 baseline period.

The total costs, which are mainly caused by extreme heat, drought and flooding, could amount to up to €9.5 billion, the study suggests. At the same time, gains caused by milder winters and lower energy usage, could reach around €3 billion per year.

People who are already very vulnerable due to poor health, low income or inadequate housing, often in densely populated urban areas, are also expected to be the most affected by the consequences of climate change,” the study warns, as costs of food or energy could increase the impact on low-income households.

Fries and beer threatened

While a variety of economic sectors including energy, fisheries, tourism, transport and agriculture will be deeply affected, the report highlights that the latter could suffer substantially.

Belgians eat 38 kilograms of fresh potatoes and 6-7 kilograms of processed potatoes at home every year, according to Belgium’s National Union of Fry-makers. Belgium is also one of the world’s largest exporters of pre-cooked and frozen potato products, exporting to 150 countries.

According to the report, a combination of drought and heatwave in 2018 led to a loss of 31% of the potato crop in Flanders, which accounts for the vast majority of the country’s production, as well as 13% of sugar beets and 10% of cereals.

The same year, drought led to a 23% price increase in frozen potatoes.

With rising temperatures, a larger amount of water will also be required to process and store the products.

Belgium’s industry has already started preparing by shifting towards potato varieties that are more resistant to heat and water stress.

EU should do more on agrodiversity, Commissioner warns

Diversifying food production is key to strengthening the resilience of European agriculture and creating realistic business models for farmers in the coming years, according to EU’s agri-boss Janusz Wojciechowski.

For the potato industry, this comes as another blow after the COVID-19 lockdown kept restaurants, bars and many of Belgium’s 5,000 frites stands closed. This led to the trade association for the national potato industry calling on the population at large to do its part by eating more fries.

Beer producers, on the other hand, will have to cope with a shortage of ingredients, including water, barley and hops.

As barley for Belgian beer is largely imported, supply will depend on how climate change affects the producing regions and estimates suggest Belgium as an importer country could face a loss of “several tens of percent,” the report found, with beer production potentially going down by 10% to 40%.

Additionally, the production of traditional ‘lambic’ beers, like geuze and kriek, could slowly start to vanish as the brewing process is critically dependent on ambient temperature, the report suggests

“The traditional lambic beer production was the unique way to brew since ancient times, until the early twentieth century. The loss of the few traditional lambic brewers left in Belgium today as a result of climate change has perhaps little economical weight, but would certainly put a blow to Belgium’s unique beer heritage and tradition,” it states.

Meanwhile, by 2050, in years with unfavourable weather conditions, crop yields could drop by up to 35% compared to recent figures for observed minimum levels, especially for potato and maize.

For poultry, cattle and pig production, production losses of up to 2-5% were found to be likely.

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